Note: This article was published in a book of essays taken from the CONFIGURATIONS IN MONTRÉAL: PERFORMANCE CURATION AND COMMUNITIES OF COLOUR event, conducted in 2017. Canadian and American performance curators, artists, and scholars gathered in Montréal June 1 and 2, 2017 to share work, develop resources, and build strategies for supporting performance in, for and by Black, Indigenous and communities of colour in Canada and the United States.
Configurations in Motion: Performance Curation for Communities of Colour
By Vivine Scarlett
dance Immersion is an organization based in Toronto, Canada, founded in 1994 by myself, Vivine Scarlett, a former dance artist drawn to all kinds of styles and expressions. The organization was established to address the lack of presentation from dance artists of the African Diaspora who create work from their own dance experiences and related environment. The African Diaspora refers to the communities that are descended from the historic movement of peoples from the continent of Africa, who were forcibly dispersed throughout the world.
The organization had its beginnings under the tutelage of DanceWorks and Dance Ontario along with Dance Umbrella of Ontario and was further assisted as an umbrella program of Canadian Artists Network: Black Artists In Action (CAN:BAIA).
Originally founded to provide a platform where local and national artists of African descent could showcase work, it became apparent after 3 years of programming that the community was in need of more resources that provided:
- additional skill development within the dance styles they practiced
- connection to institutions that offer information and technical training
- collaborative initiatives with like minded people and practices within their genre
- programming for children and youth
dance Immersion now includes local, national and international artists in programs that consist of:
- Showcase Presentations
- In-Studio Presentations
- Workshop Series
- Youth Arts Programs (YAP)
Our programming is designed to feed each other in a circular system where each program nourishes the other. We provide a nurturing and supportive environment for dance artists to work and explore diverse styles and expressions. The organization is committed to actively seeking out, supporting and presenting the artistic product of dance to the broader community.
A Board of Directors governs the organization and its day to day operations is administered by a team that consists of three people:
- Program Director
- Events Administrator/YAP Coordinator (PT)
The organization contracts professional services for specific activities involved in carrying out its various programs. A dedicated pool of volunteers assist with particular assignments for our activities.
As a curator sourcing and researching artists who practice contemporary work within a European context are easily found and identified but it continues to be a challenge locating dance artists who practice styles outside of the main stream. These artists are rarely found through national festivals or in larger venues. Such artists have to be sourced differently usually through research that includes connections to community based outlets where they practice their work.
Once identified it becomes a process of introduction and relationship building:
- assessing where they are in their practice
- finding out what their needs are
- where do they want to take the art
- what desire, and resources do they have to progress their art
Our work at dance Immersion has become far more than just adhering to mandate, mission protocol and procedures but often dealing with deeper issues that have impacted artists and the effects of being pre categorized by racial identity instead of self identification. This repeated pattern has frustrated, diverted and depressed many searching in the world of dance, creating a feeling of being sidelined and excluded. It is important that we as an organization empower, inform and introduce the artists we serve to the myriad of resources and opportunities that currently exist.
dance Immersion works to strengthen our organizations connections and partnerships in a synergy that brings a reciprocal understanding of each other’s mission, mandate and financial competency for continuance. We are members of: Dance Ontario, CanDance Network (Canada’s national network supporting the creation and distribution of contemporary dance.), Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario (CPAMO), and the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD). Through relationships within this network, dance Immersion has been able to promote and advocate for dance artists of African descent in a number of different ways.
As a member of the CanDance Network, we have had some success in connecting with other Canadian presenters but the challenge has been promoting artists of African Descent, whose work is not understood within a European contemporary dance definition. Our efforts remain to initiate relationship building, possibly through collaborative initiatives, tour links or workshops. Presenters often refer artists of African descent to our organization, which we are grateful for the connection, but there is usually no other attempt by that presenter to continue a relationship with the artist referred. Work is readily accepted if it looks, and feels European but these works often fit a single view and not reflective of the promoted multicultural mosaic of Canada. The usual justification is that the work is not contemporary enough or does not fit into that organizations mandate.
We have had greater success with international organizations where there have been able to embark on exchanges of presentations, instructors, consultations and more. Organizations like the IABD (International Association of Blacks in Dance), ADAD (Association of Dance of the African Diaspora) now One Dance UK, Big Mission in the UK and various other international artists/companies whom we continue to work with to provide a wide range of experiences and knowledge sharing that informs the work.
It is within this international network that we have been able to connect artists in a profound way, to a foundation of experiences that evolves artists work inside the context of their dance practice. This has become an important part of how we have begun to address some of our community needs on a global platform where artists can define themselves amongst like minded people and practices that inform mind, body and soul. This is done through methods that bring about an empowering confidence and understanding of the work being created by artists from the African Diaspora.
As a multifaceted organization, we consistently witness work, proposals, and support materials, that are in need of further development; along with guidance and mentorship in order for ideas and initiatives to reach their fruition. The support that offers administration, networking and resources has been a missing link which has delayed growth and contribution of a healthy arts ecology within our community. This community includes practitioners, teachers, and administrators, where many of those practicing do not have the adequate knowledge, resources, connections or sufficient funds to address organizational/individual challenges.
In 2015 we underwent an exercise with consultant Mercy Nabirye from then (ADAD) in the UK, that included focus groups with members from Toronto’s African Canadian dance community about issues lacking within the milieu. This gave us incredible insight into what resources was needed to support the community at this time. The priority issues we chose to address were the need for additional workshops, forums and symposiums dedicated to advancing the knowledge, appreciation, and practice for organizations/artists of the African Diaspora who continuously work amongst the inequities within the cultural sector.
dance Immersion‘s pilot initiatives strive to address the need for services that support knowledge sharing, administration and mentorship. Initiatives all work separately yet still functioning within our existing programming that delivers diverse experiences. Although the projects main focus is dance, content provides transferable information that will be marketed to multidisciplinary participants.
There is so much more about ourselves that we have not investigated instead exerting a lot of blood, sweat, tears and energy trying to be included on many fronts. All journeys in art (no matter its genre) are formed, inspired, developed and created from its environmental landscape, geographical location, traditions and histories, that shape not only art but the very core of human existence.
By cultivating a fertile ground for creating multi-layered initiatives, we define our own diverse work and continue to build on the legacy of our artistic expressions. The importance of developing the art form with organizations that include, support, and build skills, benefits in establishing an overall sector that inspires the future and longevity of who we are and the art forms we practice.
Yes global networking creates additional challenges and is a very expensive venture that requires more resources BUT every time we get bogged down in the reality of it all, we are inspired remembering we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. Those ancestors whose global work shared our stories and expressions in extremely challenging times. Their work continues to influence many as we honour the legacy of; Pearl Primus, Len Gibson, Eleo Pomare, Dindi Lidge, Rex Nettleford, Baba Chuck Davis, Dr. Sherrill Berryman Johnson, just to name a few.
dance Immersion moves forward incorporating a West African practice where “Art is not separated but seen as a whole” and it is with this concept that we forge into the universal language of our art form, networking and sourcing information that nurtures and builds communities. Our goal is to erase old concepts and reimagine a wider understanding and change to the pre-defined perspectives, stereotypes and popular images we currently see and subliminally gravitate towards in the belief that it is the only way. This path we have chosen widely supports others who continue to advocate for our inclusivity. We honour the work of these soldiers who continue to make sure that our art does not become invisible in the world of “visible minorities”. We will work with all, as we continue to define and develop within the global community building relationships, connections and resources that feed, strengthen and bring together an artistic movement that is truly sourced from its origin.